A vintage Rosh Hashanah greeting card
A vintage Rosh Hashanah greeting card

Look for the holy spark within and greet the new year with hope

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The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.

Nitzavim / Rosh Hashanah

Deuteronomy 29:9-30:20

Rosh Hashanah is almost here — a pregnant, hopeful time, when the Jewish People celebrate the “birthday of the world,” declare the Creator sovereign again, and pour out collective yearning for a clean slate and new beginning.

But in this ongoing time of uncertainty and crisis, some of us may be coming to these High Holidays, our second under the cloud of Covid, with decidedly mixed emotions. We might be similar to those whom Moses included when he assured the people:

“Surely, this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, ‘who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us that we may observe it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it for us, that we may observe it?’” (Deuteronomy 30:11-13)

In a few vivid, masterful sentences, Moses acknowledges the ambivalence many Jews hold toward the ancient teachings.

So much in the modern world appears out of control and beyond help, and we may feel baffled by and distant from the customs of our ancestors as we navigate our way through treacherous waters. Yet, since the time of the sages, this memorable passage granted permission to reshape traditions in our own wise hands and adapt to the circumstances of our day.

As the High Holidays approach, it also reminds us that no matter how far we may have strayed, we can still find our way home.

A gathering of renowned sages once debated passionately over whether a particular baking vessel was subject to ritual impurity, a deceptively mundane issue (BT Bava Metzia 59b). Rabbi Eliezer, the lone minority voice, cried out for signs and wonders to support his position. First, he declared that if he was right, a nearby carob tree would prove it. The tree moved several hundred cubits on its own, but the majority rabbis were unmoved.

He then called for a local stream to reverse course if his opinion was correct. The stream turned backwards, but still the rabbis dug in. Rabbi Eliezer summoned the walls of the study house to support his claim, and they trembled.

A quick intervention by Rabbi Joshua prevented them from falling — he scolded the walls, saying, “If the scholars are engaged in battle, what is it your concern?” — and they leaned halfway in deference to both sides.

Finally, he invoked the very heavens to support him, and a sweet Divine voice defended him, saying, “The law is in accordance with Rabbi Eliezer!”

Then the hammer fell. Rabbi Joshua stood up and said, quoting directly from our parashah: “It is not in heaven!” Despite literal divine intervention, the majority prevailed.

The decisions of interpreting Torah law would be made on Earth, by human beings.

Perhaps most surprising is God’s response to the bold, even mutinous behavior of the rabbis: “What was God doing at the time of the showdown? God was smiling, saying ‘My children have triumphed over me! My children have triumphed over me!’”

This audacious tale exhorts us to use our own good sense, to debate and deliberate, and accept the risk of respecting the majority opinion, which may or may not yield positive societal results.

Jewish values are essential and immutable, but Jewish practice and laws should evolve and respond to the tides of history within the parameters of those values. The process may be contentious and messy, but Moses and God trust us to carry this joint venture forward on our own.

If the final word on navigating the minefield of the world is “not in the heavens,” then where is it? Moses tells us. “The thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.” (Deut. 30:14)

We look for answers in many places. Often we search everywhere except in our own beautiful heritage.

It’s wonderful, even absolutely necessary, to learn about other paths and approaches to life. To do so increases respect for the many variety of peoples on Earth, an appreciation which we need rather desperately. But at the High Holidays, we’re called to return home, to sit awhile in the world of our Jewish fathers and mothers and hear again what they have to share.

Deuteronomy chapter 30 uses the word shuv (return) 10 times in seven verses. In the act of teshuvah (turning and returning) we can be led, mouth and heart, to the path of repair and wholeness.

We may have decried the traditions as inaccessible, excessively lofty or even irrelevant. The temptation to follow other roads may be great.

But Moses validates our struggle, and has faith that our instincts are good and holy; that, created in the image of the Divine, we need but look to the Holy Spark within to be recharged and revitalized, ready to greet the New Year with confidence and hope. May 5782 bring blessings of joy and hope to us all.

Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon
Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon

Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon is rabbi of Congregation Ner Tamid in the Sunset District of San Francisco, her hometown. She is a graduate of the Academy for Jewish Religion California and a member of Rabbis Without Borders. She can be reached at [email protected].